Louvre Abu Dhabi

November 24, 2017
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“Let there be light,” said Jean Nouvel, when invited to work on the billion dollar project that has become Louvre Abu Dhabi. The acclaimed French architect refers to himself as a “contextual artist” whose first responsibility is to the broader culture in which a building takes its place. In this instance, his starting point was the mashrabbiya – the pierced screen that filters light, found throughout the Arab world. Standing beneath the complex, eight-layered geometrical fantasia that forms the museum’s central dome, the visitor is bathed in dappled light from which the sting of the Middle Eastern sun has been removed.

This is a pleasant discovery because Nouvel’s masterpiece looks decidedly unprepossessing on approach – a grey, flattened igloo that almost disappears into the heat haze on the horizon. The entrance is through a carpark, a feature that drew a tetchy remark from the architect during a press conference, when he expressed his hope that future visitors will enter via a garden, if only the funds are forthcoming.

As the latest architectural landmark in a city in which everything appears to have been built yesterday – from towering office blocks to the spectacular Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi makes a virtue of its modest elevation, a mere 30 metres above the shoreline. It is, however, 180 metres from one side of the dome to the other.

Under the dome

Under the dome

Louvre Abu Dhabi is destined to become one of the world’s premier tourist attractions in 2018. It is but a short flight for Europeans, while for Australians it’s an easy stopover on the way to Europe. The project has allowed the United Arab Emirates to dream of becoming a “cultural hub”, and they have every reason to feel confident.

The museum is the first of a series of institutions proposed for the newly-created cultural district of Saadiyat Island. The original plan envisaged a branch of the Guggenheim designed by Frank Gehry; the Sheik Zayed National Museum, by Norman Foster; a maritime museum by Tadao Ando, and a performing arts centre by the late Zaha Hadid. It would be hard to imagine a more high-powered group of international architects, but so far there is little progress with the other projects and much speculation about what will and won’t be built.

This has allowed Nouvel to set the standard by which future edifices will be judged. As well as the pierced screen, he was inspired by the medina – the self-contained, labyrinthine village found within many Arab cities, usually in shades of white or pale blue.

Le Corbusier had a similar enthusiasm for traditional Arab architecture, but typically wanted to impose his own vision upon it when he put forward a never-to-be-built plan for Algiers. Nouvel has taken a more sympathetic attitude, treating the internal plan as a “neighbourhood” of 55 individual buildings, including 23 permanent galleries, all clustered under the great dome.

From first conception, more than a decade ago, the Sheikhs of Abu Dhabi realised that to make a global impact they would need more than a building. It’s a lesson the Art Gallery of NSW has yet to learn, with its specious claims that the Sydney Modern extension will turn the institution into “one of the world’s great museums”.

Great museums require great collections, and even with the colossal spending power of the oil-rich Emirates, those works are hard to come by today. The majority of the world’s masterpieces are already in public collections, and when a piece by a famous artist comes up for auction the prices can be astronomical, as proven by the AUD$591 million recently stumped up for a questionable Leonardo da Vinci at Christie’s.

The first work acquired for the Abu Dhabi collection, in 2009, was a painting by Piet Mondrian from the collection of Yves Saint-Laurent, bought at auction for € 21 million. (They actually got a bargain because the next Mondrian to set a record would sell for US$50.6 million in 2015.)

Piet Mondrian, 'Composition with blue, red, yellow and black' (1922)

Piet Mondrian, ‘Composition with blue, red, yellow and black’ (1922)

As for the rest of this diverse collection there is everything from a Madonna and child by Giovanni Bellini; a portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart; contemporary pieces by Cy Twombly and Ai Weiwei; Japanese prints; a vast array of artefacts and ceramics; and – somewhat tragically – the bronze Shiva Nataraja formerly in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. In 2009 it was sold to help pay for a bigger and better Shiva, which turned out to be stolen and had to be returned to Tamil Nadu. Now we have none.

Shiva Nataraja.. formerly of Canberra

Shiva Nataraja.. formerly of Canberra

One room, called the gallery of Universal Religions, makes a serious statement of intent: featuring vintage examples of the Qu’ran, the Bible, the Torah, and the Buddhist Sutras, all displayed side-by-side. There is no place for religious or cultural bigotry in this institution.

Over the past decade Louvre Abu Dhabi’s collecting policy has been aimed at creating a “universal museum for the 21st century”. This would be an ambitious goal for any museum anywhere, but the confederation of the United Arab Emirates only came into being on 2 December 1971. Starting from scratch, under the leadership of the late Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who is revered as the father of his country, oil revenues were used to build a rock-solid infrastructure.

Culture is the final element in the UAE’s vision of itself as a prosperous modern state, but the Emiratis have not settled for hoovering up a collection of glittering treasures. The historic agreement with the Louvre, which was signed in March 2007, was not only a way of ensuring access to high quality works, it was a method for tapping into the expertise and professionalism of the French museum world.

Today, young Emiratis are undertaking scholarships and internships with the Louvre, training as curators, conservators and administrators. In time, these trainees will take on major roles at Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Equally important is the idea of the museum as an educational resource for the local population. Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubrarak, who is the major force behind the museum development, sees Louvre Abu Dhabi as a “game changer” for new generations of students who will be exposed to the best the world has to offer.

The agreement will see the Louvre name leased to Abu Dhabi for a period of 30 years and six months. For the next ten years the museum will receive significant loans from 13 French institutions gathered under the banner of Agence-France-Muséums (AFM). The quantity of these loans will diminish over time as the museum’s permanent collection expands. For the French the deal is worth some €400 million.

Both parties are understandably anxious to play down the role of money in the agreement. The Emiratis don’t wish to be seen to be buying culture in a vulgar manner, the French don’t want us to believe they are prostituting their patrimony. Perhaps the best argument in support of both cases is the sheer quality of the loans in this inaugural exhibition.

Leonardo da Vinci, 'La belle ferroiniere' (1490-96)

Leonardo da Vinci, ‘La belle ferroiniere’ (1490-96)

Of the 600 works on display, 300 are borrowed from French Museums, including 100 items from the Louvre. Star billing goes to Leonardo da Vinci’s Le belle ferronière (1490-96), but there are exquisite items from amost all departments of the Louvre, from large-scale statuary to a delicate Iranian plate with a ring of fish (c.1300). The Musée d’Orsay has been equally generous, lending Manet’s The Fife Player (1866); an 1887 Self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh; and the iconic Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871), otherwise known as Whistler’s Mother.

Edouard Manet, The Fife Player' (1866)

Edouard Manet, The Fife Player’ (1866)

The Chateau of Versailles has lent a version of Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David. There are unique Asian pieces from the Musée Guimet, and important ethnographic items from the Musée du Quai Branly. Among works of modern art contributed by the Centre Pompidou, there are paintings by artists such as Matisse, De Chirico and Warhol.

According to the museum’s first director, 41-year-old Manuel Rabaté, it was easier to get these loans than one might imagine. Before taking up his post last year, Rabaté had been involved with the Abu Dhabi project from the beginning, as Chief Executive Officer of Agence-France-Muséums. “Being French,” he says, “everything starts with a dissertation. The first phase was theoretical, as we explained what we hoped to do. When the discourse about a universal narrative was right, everyone wanted to join in.”

“Of course it helped that Jean-Luc Martinez from the Louvre could say, ‘I’m lending La belle ferronière’, and Guy Cogeval of the Orsay, said: ‘I’m thinking of lending The Fife Player.’ It’s just like putting an exhibition together – you use one work as leverage for the next. Before long all the participating museums were offering us important pieces.”

A great deal of French cogitation has gone into the first hang, which is strictly chronological but divided into themes, not specific locations. So instead of having sections for Egyptian art, Greek and Roman, Ottoman, African, Romantic, Modern and so on, one is just as likely to encounter a glass case with three objects from three different places, made within the same time frame.

In rethinking the idea of a “universal museum”, the curators have chosen to emphasise affinities within different cultures. The keynote is set in an introductory room where we see items such as three flints ( “the first globalised technology,” according to Rabaté); and three golden funerary masks, all from different places. There is also an emphasis on works that embody collisions and interactions between cultures, such as a commode by 18th century Parisian cabinet maker Bernard van Risenbergh, decorated with red Chinese lacquer; or a 17th century Japanese screen depicting Portuguese merchants.

It’s an ingenious way of producing a display that crosses boundaries of space and time to make sweeping, provocative observations about culture; while also disguising the inevitable limitations of the collection.

This could be a stimulating way to display works of art, but the museum’s marketing slogan: “See humanity in a new light”, sounds more like a celebration of our shared condition along the lines of Edward Steichen’s famous photography show, The Family of Man, which travelled the world from eight years from 1955 onwards. When it got to Paris the exhibition was roundly denounced by the famous French critic, Roland Barthes, as “pietistic” and sentimental.

This is the danger of using exhibitions to make generalisations about what is is to be human. The similarities between items may be remarkable, but there is always the temptation to take them as evidence of an underlying brotherhood that transcends the relentless conflict and turbulence of history.

It may be a noble thing that the first universal museum to be built in the Middle East celebrates our shared creative spirit, but it remains a rhetorical achievement. The creative instinct is one of the brightest parts of human nature, but a truly universal museum will have to take account of the dark as well. The ideal result may be something like the flickering play of shadows under Jean Nouvel’s great dome.

Published in Spectrum, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 December, 2017